SMART Schools Symposium Results: Student Engagement and Sustainability

Check out this update on the SMART School Program, provided by Dalton Kimball, AERO’s Energy Volunteer:

Earlier this year, we learned about the Montana Energy Corps Program and briefly introduced some of their projects and members. Since then, the program has been quite busy. The SMART Schools program recently had their symposium to announce winners of their state-wide, student focused sustainability challenge. All the hard work of the students, school districts, organizers and volunteers has led to an extremely successful year.

For those of you who may not be familiar, the SMART (Saving Money and Resources) Schools program is a sustainability driven competition between more than 60 school districts here in Montana. With the intention of engaging students and faculty in the use of pragmatic sustainable practices, the schools are incentivized to sign up for one, or any combination of the challenges, which include the Energy Challenge, the Green Challenge, and the Recycling Challenge. The 2016-2017 season showed remarkable results, with a combined total of $173,000 in energy savings, the diversion of 68,000 pounds of waste from landfills, and offset around 1023 metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to the emissions from burning about 4 railcars worth of coal!

The Red Lodge Green Team accepting their award for promoting more environmentally friendly practices.

Included in this year’s winners were Capital High School (Helena) and Sleeping Giant Middle School (Livingston). Capital High recycled an impressive 4,000 pounds of waste and its students developed lesson plans to teach middle schoolers about carbon and plant cycles. The school installed motion and occupancy sensors throughout their buildings, and made the transition to using environmentally friendly cleaning products. The school continues to generate power from their 10 kW Solar PV system which was installed in 2015. Check out their real time data on this site:

Sleeping Giant Middle School Students pose with Lt. Governor Mike Cooney and their aquaponics materials.

Sleeping Giant Middle School has continued to focus both on energy efficiency, lighting, and spreading knowledge about alternative energy resources. Calling professionals in the Solar industry to speak with the science classes and incentivizing students and faculty to turn off computers and lights when possible are just a couple ways that they have been active. All progress is recorded and distributed to students and faculty, and some of the information is presented by 7th graders, to younger classes. Like Capital High, these efforts are complimented by a Solar PV system as well as the grants they have received to assist their journey to increased energy efficiency.

Governor Bullock congratulates the students from Brorson School on their recycling success

Alongside the winners of the competition, huge strides have been made across many the districts that have entered the competition. Sacajawea Middle School, for example, has had major success in their student led Solar Makes Sense program. Students have been extremely active in fundraising and making presentations to the school board as well as potential donors. Their efforts have generated more than $26,000 towards the implementation of a solar PV system! Their goal is to reach $130,000. If you would like to contribute and/or learn more about their program, please visit their website here.

These students are our future. It is impressive to see how passionate they are about their own future, as well as the future of their planet. I would like to extend a special thanks to Callye Foster, the SMART Schools Coordinator for keeping us abreast on recent developments.

For more info on the challenge, visit their website.

Trucking Along: Wicked Good Farm

Not only does The Wicked Good Farm deliver locally grown and organic produce each week at the Whitefish Farmers Market, they deliver it by bicycle and cart! If you attended AERO’s Expo in Kalispell this fall, you may remember that The Wicked Good Farm supplied kale. Additionally, farm owner Brooke Bohannon acted as a liaison between the chef at the Red Lion and local producers to provide a nearly all local menu. Food was sourced from ten farms in the Flathead valley.

Farmers Brooke Bohannon and Sean Hard started The Wicked Good Farm (WGF) because they believe in preserving the ability to produce quality food. They grow fresh greens, herbs, produce, and strawberries at an urban farm in Whitefish.  When outside working, they visit and exchange stories with neighbors, hoping that this “Over the fence” interaction inspires others to grow their own food.

“The majority of our consumers are local, they are our neighbors!” Brooke says.   They find it easy to network with consumers, farmers and producers in the Flathead valley; since it is a relatively small community they find connections everywhere.  Participation in Farmers’ Markets and workshops like AERO’s Growing Food Business workshop have provided excellent networking opportunities.

WGF attended AERO’s Growing Food Business workshop in spring of 2016, and they learned that the updated Cottage Food law will help with their direct sales to consumers, such as in Farmers Markets, deliveries, or pop-up stands.  The representatives from DPHHS, Mission Mountain Food Enterprise, and other agencies fielded specific questions and allowed for a tremendous amount of information exchange.

 Brooke said the workshop also helped them clarify and understand confusing parts of the Cottage Food Law, which is valuable for their plan to “test the waters” with potentially non-hazardous food items.  They learned flour is “shelf stable” and exempt from the Cottage Food Law (but currently limited to direct sales).  Recognizing that cereal grains are a huge part of Montana’s agriculture production, they are attempting to increase accessibility to Montana grown whole wheat flour. Part of The Wicked Good Farm’s goal is to increase their immediate community’s accessibility to local foods, and this venture aligns well with their ambitions!

So, it is exciting that they have recently begun milling organic Montana-grown grains, selling directly to consumers, with the intent to eventually offer it wholesale.  Preliminary sales will help determine if there is a viable local market for fresh stone-milled whole wheat flour. They are hoping the locals get on board, and they’ll proceed to the next level, wholesale.
We’re fortunate to have growers like The Wicked Good Farm in Montana, and especially happy that they are AERO supporters and members.  

Picking Your Path: Families, U-Pick, and Growing Local

“If people know the family that is behind the farm, maybe they’ll see the importance and value of keeping small farms going,” says Julie Peters of Red Hen Farm.  Julie, her husband Greg, and their two kids own the u-pick berry farm and orchard just outside of Missoula’s city limits. Along with unsprayed berries and soon-to be certified organic apples, their farm offers eggs year round, and plant starts and produce in season.   Julie agreed to share her thoughts about farm longevity, as well as dealing with rules and regulations, after attending AERO’s Growing Food Business workshop last spring.

When asked about the history of the farm, Julie said, “My husband needed more space for his landscaping company’s equipment, so we purchased the farm.  We were always passionate about fruits and finding u-pick places, and it was our dream to try and have one.”  The first year, 2011, they planted several apple trees.  Then they solicited friends to help figure out how many strawberries they would need to plant to maintain a U-Pick farm. They bought thousands of plants, intending to market the strawberries until they could find a buyer for the apple crop.  Now, in their 6th year, they have strawberries, raspberries and other vegetables. In the height of the season, u-pick visitors have picked over 100 lbs of berries a day, no doubt going home with red-stained fingers!

“The workshop was helpful to have Health Department professionals in the same room, to ask detailed questions one on one, and it was great to have options around the state to attend.  In fact, we would love to see more AERO workshops available discussing ag. legislation.  One of our biggest stumbling blocks is that we don’t always know what farm projects or products are under regulation,” Julie said.  Learning more about Montana and the USDA’s farming regulations would be very helpful for their business.  So far, they have not filled out the Cottage Food Act registration, which is something Julie admits to being a bit overwhelming.  The Cottage Food regulations will help them determine the requirements for growing their business with value-added products, like drying fruit or making cider for sale.

“I’d love to go to more workshops AERO put on, such as how to diversify our income, or agritourism information sessions.”  They’d like to know what options are available for small farmers beyond growing a new crop, but need help weeding through local and state regulations.  Last year, Red Hen Farm started offering Community Supported Agriculture shares, with weekly offerings of berries such as strawberries, gooseberries, currants, eggs, vegetables, and fruits such as peaches or apples.  This year they have 30 families signed up to get their delicious, organically grown fruit.  If you can’t make it to the farm, you’ll be happy to know they provide berries and fruit to Missoula restaurants including, Mmm Waffles, Caffe Dolce, Great Harvest, and Green Source.

Along with their busy U-pick and CSA schedule, Julie and Greg plan to create a “Farm Friday” farmer’s market on their property.  “At the height of the season we’ll have veggies, eggs and fruits available,” she told us.   Another project they hope generates revenue is Greg’s apple tree grafting.  He has searched for a diverse group of heirloom and rare apple scions, and is doing personal field trials to determine what trees will grow and produce best in the Missoula area.  In fact, they are doing these comparisons with many of their plant stock, in order to have the best production on their farm.

From our afternoon chat, it was obvious that Julie is very passionate about providing food to the Missoula community, in the healthiest way possible.  They love being on the edge of the city, so that Missoulians can get there quickly and easily.  Their beautiful location and life are very welcoming, and we’ve already planned a family trip down to pick berries from their farm, happily avoiding the box store.  We wish them the best of luck in their 2017 growing season!


Visit their website or facebook page for up to date information on events and produce!

Breaking Through the Bottleneck: Bringing Commercial Kitchens to Communities

In 2012, when Anne Little wanted to create a soup cart in Missoula, she couldn’t find a commercial kitchen that met her needs. After talking with other cooks and the Health Department, as well as visiting a few less-than-optimal kitchens, she and her husband, Pat, realized that what Missoula really needed was good commercial kitchen space (and maybe a soup cart). They started looking for a location and eventually opened Moonlight Kitchens in late 2014.

The space currently offers 2 kitchens, a work space, cleaning area, and loading area.

In 2015, Moonlight Kitchens applied for and received a “Growth through Agriculture” (GTA) grant from the state of Montana to install an 8’×12’ walk-in cooler and high-temp dishwasher, increasing the efficiency and usability of the kitchens thus reducing the cost to the cooks. Moonlight Kitchens continues to look for ways to help cooks and business entrepreneurs succeed, and currently offers a variety of  classes and events during the year to expose new cooks and the general public to their facility and the local food system in Missoula.

The mission of Moonlight Kitchens is “to connect our farmers with our neighbors through our cooks, and to run a triple bottom line business (people, profit, planet).” This means they work with, and donate to, related local non-profit food organizations, encourage the cooks to use their recycling facilities, provide cooks with information and access to local food suppliers, and facilitate their process of creating viable food businesses.

AERO staff had a brief interview with Anne, to ask for her thoughts on the 2016 Growing Food Businesses workshop, particularly as someone who is also working to educate and empower food producers!  Anne admitted that, while she couldn’t remember exact details, she thought the general information and handouts were helpful, and that like many other attendees, she found  the open discussion among participants to be highly useful.  “We appreciate making connections with other commercial kitchen businesses.  The information we got out of the workshop was good, but the connections were most valuable.”

When asked if Moonlight Kitchens has made any changes after the workshop, or after the revised Cottage Food Law, Anne admitted that the policy changes have actually decreased her business.  When cooks come in in to rent a kitchen, if it sounds to Anne like they could do their preparation and production at home, she makes sure to tell them.  “I’m not required by law to tell them, but even if I lose their business, I want the cooks to know they can save money by making their products at home,” she said.  This includes the homemade chocolate chip cookies or pastries that you find at any Farmers’ Market, which can now be produced at home under the cottage food law.

On the flip side, there are cooks who are making items  at home that are now legally required to have been prepared in a commercial kitchen.  Anne follows the legislative bills closely, in order to stay up to date on new laws, and weigh in on bills that may be beneficial to local food farmers and ranchers.

When asked why she and her husband are doing what they do, Anne laughed and said, “How much time ya got?  Pat and I are committed to supporting local farmers, which is basically our mission statement,” she says.  “In our experience, commercial kitchens are the bottleneck in local food systems.”  There are not enough spread throughout the state to support those who are producing Montana products.  After a longer discussion about processing and distribution centers in Montana, she said, “Supporting the local economy is important, especially with food security issues.”  

2017 will be Moonlight Kitchen’s third summer in operation.  They are keeping busy, especially after a winter spent implementing their Growth Through Agriculture grant for the cooler and dishwasher.   

Their local food passion extends far beyond the kitchen doors.  Anne has worked in food co-ops since the ’70s, has run several small businesses, and currently helps keep the Five Valley Seed Library going. She’s a former board member of MUD (Missoula Urban Demonstration Project) and a current member/owner of the Missoula Community Food Co-op. Pat’s background is in engineering. Originally from the UK, he’s worked for several large aerospace companies and most recently was employed by The Nature Conservancy doing computer support work. He’s served on the Missoula PlanningBoard and currently manages  theFive Valleys Audubon website. He’s also a co-op member/owner.  Anne and Pat have lived in Missoula since 2009.


Whenever possible, they go to Farmers’ Markets and talk to the vendors, inviting them to come and see their kitchens.  “We have regular potluck dinners for the public to meet the farmers.  15-20 people show up and we all just get together and talk!” she says.  It’s beneficial for farmers to meet their target buyers, and of course, the other way around also.

Anne feels that in addition to organizing workshops, AERO should revive Montana’s Grange Halls.  “They would be a great bridge between younger and older farmers, and AERO could help record and share the older generations’ knowledge.”  Similar to AERO’s Farm Improvement Clubs project from years ago, Grange participants acquired an impressive amount of practical knowledge and experience through field and farm research, education, and socializing.

We’re so grateful for Montana’s farmers, ranchers, and producers, and it’s easy to forget there are unsung heroes that aide in getting local products to us, the consumers.  Moonlight Kitchens has been unrivaled in the support of AERO and a sustainable Montana and we are eager to promote (and taste) all the products they help deliver!

(Note, parts of this are taken from the website)

From Seed to Soup

Due to a clerical error, Black Bear Soups and Produce almost rolled out to the public as “Black Bear Soap.”  Ellie Costello, owner, tells us that this is only one of the small challenges she has faced while trying to establish her business and sell her locally grown and handmade soups.   


Ellie attended AERO’s Growing Food Business Workshop last spring, and was interested in learning what next steps she could take in order to grow her business.  She admitted that many portions of the new Cottage Food Law don’t apply to her because her soup products need to be created in a commercial kitchen.  However, there are a number of grey area items included in the soup production, including dried herbs and spices.  Although regulations from the Department of Public Health and Human Service are becoming clearer, more streamlined and consistent, (see AERO’s Spiritworks Herb Farm and Healing Arts Sanctuary writeup), Ellie chose to rent a kitchen space in a commercial kitchen from the start so as not to run into any problems.  This way, she avoided the confusions of the Cottage Food Act, and her products would be prepared according to USDA regulations.

2017 will be her third year working part time with this business, and most of her sales are at the Saturday Market in Missoula, selling directly to customers.  She also aims to obtain a catering license to provide her delicious, mostly vegetarian soups to larger groups.  Ellie grows her own produce in Missoula on a rented farm plot, and what she can’t supply from her own land, she sources locally from other farms.  “Because soup is so versatile and broad, I knew I would be able to use almost any kind of produce grown in Montana,” Ellie said. “This was crucial because I not only wanted to provide soups during the winter, but year round as a quick, healthy meal option, and I appreciated the thought of serving our customers in a way that helps them feel more in sync with the natural progression of the crop season.”  She felt the versatility would allow a menu that adapted to each harvest season.

Ellie thinks customers might like to see that the produce she grows goes directly into the soups, so she may sell veggies next to the soups at the Farmers’ Market this year, as well.  Ellie’s full time job is Organizational Director for Missoula’s Urban Demonstration Project (MUD), where she works to promote urban sustainability efforts in Missoula, so her time to grow the business is limited.  She has many ideas, such as joining the Western Montana Growers Cooperative, and providing her soups in a CSA style, but hasn’t been able to fit it in her schedule yet.  “It is tons of work, and not a lot of profit.  I’m time and income limited, and right now there is no budget for marketing or business planning.”  She says she’ll keep working on making soups because, “this type of business hasn’t gotten a fair shot yet.”

For Ellie, networking through AERO, or other partner’s workshops, has been valuable.  With the Cottage Food workshop, she told us, “it was great to have all the various people in the room – the health department, other producers. The discussions at the workshops helped create inspiration and ideas that were maybe on the backburner.”   She feels supported by the Missoula nonprofit Community Food and Agriculture Coalition (CFAC), and is grateful for free or affordable trainings, such as their Planning for On-Farm Success workshop.  “The challenge for people in farming or agriculture is marketing and business planning.  I’m good at growing and making things, but not great at sitting in front of the computer,” she laughs.

She mentioned, “It has been nice to see that the Health department in Missoula is willing to step back and evaluate some of the regulations.  When it’s too much for small businesses, they recognize the challenges and are working to make changes happen.”  Ellie believes one of the best innovations in the Missoula area has been the Moonlight Kitchens incubator, run by AERO members Anne and Pat Little.  Black Bear Soups and Produce uses the commercial kitchen there to prepare their food products, and Ellie fully supports their vision of offering facilities that community members can use to expand production and business opportunities.

Ellie says she is going to give it her all in 2017, and use the things she’s learned over the last two years to make more delicious soups and recipes to sell.  In formulating AERO’s fall workshops, we’ll definitely be taking Ellie’s and other’s comments into consideration.  We want to provide Montana farmers, producers, local food heroes and others, what they give to us: hope, and really good food.


Building a Resilient Bitterroot

The O’Hara Commons and Sustainability Center is a new and active organization, located in an old farmhouse in Hamilton.  Samantha O’Byrne is its founder and director, and shared her thoughts with us about the Cottage Food Law workshop AERO held last spring.  I asked where the name came from, and Samantha said, “Robert O’Hara was the first mayor of Hamilton, and Marcus Daly’s attorney.”  He built the farmhouse back in 1896 and its regality has been well-preserved over the years.

Samantha tells us she has been on the path of sustainability all her life, and has lived in the Bitterroot for quite a while, operating a small retail shop in Hamilton for 13 years.  “Ravalli County has a lot of unemployment and poverty, and lots of people getting unhealthy food,” she said.  She began offering healthy food education and resources to all economic strata and age groups in the community, and The O’Hara Commons and Sustainability Center grew from those workshops and programs.   

The O’Hara Center connects people to local foods, and their mission, “Empowering a Resilient Community,” is an admirable one.  Their long term vision is to utilize and develop available resources to benefit community through education, resource sharing and demonstration gardens.  They do this in a manner which builds local economy, promotes healthy food options, and develops regional self-sufficiency. Like AERO, they are a membership-based organization; O’Hara’s membership is on a sliding fee schedule, with the intent that people join in at a level that fits their ability to give.  Samantha wanted to be sure we shared that “scholarship memberships are available in order to ensure that we can be inclusive to families and individuals who may not otherwise be able to participate in our programs.”

During AERO’s Growing Food Businesses workshop series, the Center was in the midst of relicensing their commercial kitchen, so they attended the workshop in Arlee hoping to learn how the new laws would fit in with the kitchen upgrades and remodel.  Through workshop discussions, they eventually redirected their intentions for the kitchen, and built an education-based kitchen instead of a wholly commercial kitchen open to the public.  Updating the past licensing information at the kitchen delayed the opening, but it is now properly licensed and members have access to all the kitchen’s tools, and all other shared resources.


The workshop provided some great networking opportunities, Samantha told us, and the information sharing between sanitarians and other local organizations was valuable.  Samantha feels that networking in the Bitterroot is not difficult, and there are many producers and growers in the area that are aiming for the same “local foods” goals.  “It is easy in our area to access producers of local healthy food options,” she says, compared to other “food deserts” in Montana.  

Samantha noted that workshop presenters received so many questions about the law, some of which did not yet have clear-cut answers or guidelines, that attendees felt a follow up class was important.  The many nuances of the law are still being hashed out, and attendees hope for updates, or more detailed classes.  (Good news!  AERO received a Grant for more workshops, to be held this fall!)

This summer, the O’Hara Center will be hosting a Wednesday Farmers’ Market, brought about by the need for a mid-week market.  They will promote a “regional food” market, which includes the nearby Lemhi county in Idaho, and include  a “truth in labeling” project which will provide information such as “organic,” or “grass-fed” at each vendor spot.

The O’Hara Center is membership based, and joining gives you access to discounted workshops and tool rentals.  They also offer truck and cider press sharing, as part of an effort to help those with storage space or financial limitations.  Samantha’s passion for healthy, local food was evident in our conversation, and a look at their website shows a full set of workshops aimed at every age and ability.  Check it out at 

We wish the Board and Members of the O’Hara Commons and Sustainability Center the best of luck with the new programs in 2017!

Distilling Local Products at The Gulch

While having a cocktail in Gulch Distiller’s tasting room, you might look through the glass to the distilling room and notice the unique elk mount with one antler drooping low over its eye socket, and then you might see the dried herbs hanging a few feet away.  And then you’d realize that the large tanks and urns in there are making what you’re sipping.  This business is definitely a local and unique treasure in Helena and across the state.

Steffen Rasile recently treated AERO staff to a tour of Helena’s only micro-distillery.  Steffen and business partner Tyrrell Hibbard purchased the distillery in 2015 with a shared passion for whiskey and quality spirits.  The two Helena natives own and operate the business, fermenting, distilling, and bottling on site.  They use only Montana grown grains in their grain-based spirits, and aim to eventually source as many of their products from Montana as possible.

Steffen attended one of AERO’s Growing Food Businesses workshops in 2016 on behalf of The Gulch, and we followed up with him and Tyrrell this winter to see what they’ve put into practice from the workshop, and how AERO can help with future resources and course offerings.  They went to the workshop to learn what equipment they would need to make infrastructure improvements and, eventually, new products.  They were curious about stainless appliances and sinks, and what their options are for sourcing local products to make syrups and liquors.

What the two found was that there are very few detailed rules written down, and product acquisition and legality is on a case by case basis due to the variable cottage food law requirements.  “There are no checklists for small businesses to follow in order to purchase and use locally grown or harvested products,” Steffen said.  “Can we buy lavender or basil from a Farmers’ Market vendor to use in our syrups or drinks?”  Or would that be illegal because the farmers have an exception under the food law, but Gulch does not.  We asked the Department of Public Health and Human Services for clarification, and Nina Heinzinger of the Food & Consumer Safety department provided some information.  Nina told us: “For retail food operations, the business owner must buy his food from approved sources.  Usually locally grown produce (such as from a CSA or farmers’ market) is approved, but the operator should check with their local sanitarian to verify this. Many operations use locally grown produce on their menus, and some contract with CSAs for produce.”  She went on to explain that an example of an unapproved source would be food prepared in a home kitchen.  “The main concern is that the owner maintains a record (i.e. bill of sale, invoice) to be able to track their sources of their food,” she told us.  More guidance and documents explaining the Cottage Food laws can be found on DPHHS website.

Another piece of advice when purchasing fresh produce is to ask the grower if he or she is GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified or if they follow the Good Agricultural Practices guidelines.  This helps demonstrate that the grower is carrying out on-farm food safety practices.  When performing updates to the Abundant Montana Directory, web designers added a “GAP certified” spot in our directory, so producers can be searchable that way!  

Steffen and Tyrrell aspire to use as many Montana products as possible, and are working on securing botanicals for products like absinthe, fernet, and aperitifs.  

Hanging in the corner of the shop are mugwort, mint, wormwood, and chamomile, which are used in the Fernet and test liqueurs and grown around Helena.  “We haven’t been able to find all the herbs and botanicals we want; somehow we need to tell farmers what to grow,” Steffen admits.  “For 40 cases of gin, we need about 60 lbs of botanicals.”

The distillery currently uses wheat from Townsend Seeds, and the Great Falls company MaltEurop (suppliers for Coors and Budweiser) reserves malt for Montana breweries and distilleries.  One of the appliances we noticed in the distillery room was a grain mill, where Steffen says they coarsely mill their own wheat and barley.  “I have a finer-grind mill at home for baking flour,” Steffen grinned.

During the process of malting and brewing, the liquid by-products left are rich in protein and fibers, and this spent grain is picked up by a Helena pig farmer.  “Otherwise I guess we would have to pour it down a drain,” he admits. This arrangement works out to be a good deal for both parties! Happy people, happy pigs.

Steffen mentioned he would appreciate AERO’s assistance in finding answers to their questions about local products and producers, and hopes we continue to build his supply of sustainable Montana items, which might help with their never ending needs for botanicals!

Gulch Distillery is mostly a local liquor provider, though they hope to expand out of Montana and onto craft distillery shelves around the west.  Right now you can find their liquors in Helena at The Windbag, On Broadway, Silver Star Steakhouse, and Miller’s Crossing.  Or head to their business location in the former Montana Distillery and Bottling Warehouse at the north end of Helena’s main, historic gulch.  They’re just downstream from the strike that turned a gulch into the mining camp that became a state capital.



In researching Steffen’s food law questions, we are reminded of the clear need for a forum to answer questions about the laws, and using local products.  AERO manages the website, and will continue to publish these discussions on there. Visit the forum to post your own question, and we’ll help connect you to answers!